I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in
And stops my mind from wandering
Where it will go
–The Beatles, “Fixing a Hole”
The mind wanders. Whether this is a bug or feature depends perhaps on when it wanders and where it wanders to. It can make tedious situations bearable and can bear the seedlings of great ideas. But daydreaming can also lead to spirals of thought that send one veering downwards into worry and depression, especially when it gets stuck on one particular thing.
There are a lot of techniques for pulling out of that tailspin–meditation, mindfulness and so on–but there’s one that I stumbled on that I carry in my pocket that may be of some use to you.
In brief, it involves talking back to the wandering mind. In detail, I’ve come up with a number of phrases–you can modify them to ones that work for you, of course, but feel free to use these as starting points–to interrupt the line of thought and shift myself back into the present.
“But that will never happen.”
“That’s not the way it happened.”
“It’s over and I can’t change it.”
But that will never happen
One of my most common wanderings involves conjuring up worst case scenarios for things in the future or somethings even in the present. They can be theoretically possible things, or completely outlandish ones. Either way, they are anxiety inducing and tend to catch up the mind in all kinds of ruminations–I’m going to fall and break this thing I’m carrying, they’re going to hate me, I’m going to say something incredibly rude. (These are examples of worst case scenarios that I have indeed gotten my head stuck on.) The antidote is a simple phrase: “But that will never happen.” All at once, the daydream nightmare (daymare?) dissolves and the mind, with nowhere else to be, returns to the present moment.
Sometimes the thing I’m thinking about is a future event that will happen to me. A meeting with the boss, for example. I might find myself rehearsing the things I’m going to say and imagining the things my boss is going to say. More often than not, I find myself mentally defending against the harshest possible questions. In this case, “But that will never happen” still works for me. Yes, the meeting with the boss is going to happen, but it will not happen in the exact way that I’m imagining it. My predictions of what the boss is going to say are likely to be way off base, for example. So I take a breath and let it go. Sometimes I do rehearse, but I try to do it mindfully and deliberately instead of letting it rattle about it in my head while I’m waiting in the checkout line.
That’s not the way it happened
Another place my head gets stuck in is the past. I rehash things that happened and often rewrite them so I can, for example, say the things I wish I could have said in conversation or restructure the sequence of events to the way I wish things had gone. When rewriting, I stop it with “That’s not the way it happened.” Once again, that stops the brain’s wandering and restores the present moment.
It’s over and I can’t change it
When I manage to rehash what did happen without amending it, it can be stopped with “It’s over and I can’t change it. Let it go.” (In point of fact, “Let it go” can work as an all purpose phrase to halt brain ramblings in their tracks. Though it does run the risk of getting a Disney song stuck in your head.) Accepting what was is crucial to one’s peace of mind. Going over what happened doesn’t advance you, particularly when the things you’re going over are only making you miserable.
The essence of it is to bring the brain back to the present, where all life happens. Spending your time in a swamp of negativity that is ultimately ephemeral doesn’t gain you much of anything. But with a regular practice of pulling yourself out of that swamp, you can spend more time in the now and savor its riches.